Archive | Literature

The System of the World

The cover of Stephenson's The System of the WorldI had two thoughts upon finishing this:

  1. Phew!
  2. I should read them again.

This third volume completes Neal Stephenson’s three volume, eight book, million+ word Baroque Cycle (alongside Quicksilver and The Confusion). The length and intricate detail of this epic makes the conclusion that much sweeter. Plot threads left dangling hundreds of thousands of words earlier suddenly return with one-armed vengeance!

This cycle can be appreciated on so many levels. The plot is gripping—especially in this third volume. The prose sucks you into the world of eighteenth century Europe. The philosophical debates are engaging. The characters feel as real as your neighbours.

The part that impressed me the most was a detailed theological debate between two characters in the eighth book. When the characters started to argue I began to worry. Theology is my discipline and I expected to find errors and omissions in Stephenson’s work. To my surprise, the author handled the minutiae of eighteenth century theology with great insight! This increased my confidence in the rest of his historical research.

The Baroque Cycle is historical fiction like no other. It is gripping literature at its finest. If you haven’t yet read it, I envy you. You’re in for a wild ride.

Stephenson, Neal. The System of the World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

The Road | Cormac McCarthy

The cover of McCarthy's The RoadThe Road is dystopian fiction like none other—lean and brutal.

The hook in dystopian fiction—and I’ve read more than my fair share—varies. Sometimes it’s a mystery novel in which the reader tries to figure out just how society arrived at its current misery. Other times it’s a constructive story of learning to transform the dystopia into something positive. None of this matters for McCarthy. In The Road there are only three ontological realities:

  1. Father
  2. Son
  3. Threats

The Road is a story of a father and son barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Everything extemporaneous to the survival of this relationship is stripped from the narrative. The father and son are unnamed. Even their dialogue reflects this minimalism, quotation marks absent from the text:

You walk too fast.
I’ll go slower.

You’re not talking again.
I’m talking.
You want to stop?
I always want to stop.

I know.
We’ll stop. Okay?
We just have to find a place.
Okay. (93)

How do you find a place where no place exists? How do you stop when to stop means to give up? These are the questions that propel McCormac’s desolate vision.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Survive | Nate Hardcastle, ed.

The cover of Hardcastle's SurviveOne of humanity’s deepest taboos is cannibalism. This is what makes the 1993 movie Alive so disturbingly compelling. Alive is the true story of a plane crash where forty-five Uruguayan rugby players are forced to survive off the bodies of the dead.

In Survive: Stories of Castaways and Cannibals, Nate Hardcastle has collected sixteen stories of people in survival situations, both fictional and non-fictional. Cannibalism occurs in twelve of the sixteen stories! What is a human being capable of doing when stretched to the edge of survival? Each account is gripping—some are heartbreaking.

Survive is packed full of top-notch writing, from Patrick O’Brian to Mark Twain to Jack London. The stories take you from icy antarctic sleeping bags to the deserts of the American West. Each account will make you question, “What would I do?”

—Nate Hardcastle, ed., Survive: Stories of Castaways and Cannibals (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001).

Purity | Jonathan Franzen

The cover of Franzen's PurityFranzen frustrates me.

His craftsmanship is top notch. He handles dialogue, character perspective, and pacing expertly. He is among the best novelists writing today.

The topics he explores in this book are all fascinating—the fall of Eastern Germany, Internet information leaks, family mystery. I expected to love Purity.

My frustration comes with the character of his characters. They are just plain unlikable. They act with selfish cruelty that leaves me confused about who to cheer for. The anti-hero is so anti, there’s nothing redemptive.

Franzen has painted a world I don’t want to live in, although the mystery gripped me until the end. One of Purity’s final thoughts illustrates the whole:

It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. (563)

—Jonathan Franzen, Purity (Toronto, ON: Bond Street Books, 2015).

The Confusion | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's The ConfusionEpic doesn’t begin to describe it. The Confusion’s story-line literally circles the globe!

The Confusion is the second of three volumes in Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. I wrote about the first volume, Quicksilver almost a year ago. The final volume in my 3,000 page adventure is The System of the World.

This second volume contains Book 4: Bonanza which details Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe’s exploits as well as Book 5: The Juncto which follows Eliza. In the interest of making the plot less confusing, Stephenson con-fused book 4 and 5 so they followed the same chronology. It worked. The moment when these two books first cross paths was electrifying!

As with Quicksilver, the number of topics covered was very broad. The most interesting idea for me was the shift from a society where money equals the value of the gold or silver the ruler’s face is stamped on to a system where something of lesser value can stand in place of a greater amount. Today we take it for granted—the polymer $10 Canadian bill in my wallet is worth less than a cent in raw material, but it’s much more valuable. Imagine living in the generation that made that transition—this is precisely what Stephenson does.

The Confusion was less confusing and a good deal more compelling than Quicksilver. I eagerly await the final three books in The System of the World.

—Neal Stephenson, The Confusion (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004).

Three Day Road | Joseph Boyden

The cover of Boyden's Three Day RoadThree Day Road lands on the emotional landscape of the reader like the First World War munitions that comprise the setting of the novel. Elijah and Xavier, great First Nation hunters, join the Canadian forces and become skilled snipers on the Great War’s killing fields. This narrative is paralleled by the stories Auntie’s childhood as she paddles only one of the soldiers home.

The story is complex and beautiful—compelling and terrifying. It repays the attentive reader. By the time I was two thirds of the way through the book, during one of Auntie’s stories, I realized how the lives of Elijah and Xavier would end. This only added to the tension of the novel since I desperately hoped to be wrong.

I’ve read Boyden’s work backwards. I started with Orenda, his latest work, then went back to Born With a Tooth and this, his first novel. While Orenda is a more brutal novel, I found that Three Day Road packed a greater emotional punch.

Elijah and Xavier will live in your thoughts for weeks after their story is safely back on the bookshelf.

—Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road (Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2005).

Home | Marilynne Robinson

The cover of Robinson's HomeHome moves slow.

In this sequel to Robinson’s Pulitzer prize winning novel GileadHome takes us back to Gilead, Iowa. The plot moves as slowly as the small town it’s set in. Glory Boughton returns to Gilead to care for her father. Shortly thereafter, her brother Jack (the troublemaker) arrives. Throw in a few meetings with the Rev. John Ames, and that’s the entire plot.

Normally, this would be a criticism. Fortunately, Home is not normal! What makes this book special is the way Robinson writes about the relationships between two siblings, their father, and an aging (softening?) preacher. I’ve never understood characters the way I understand Glory and Jack. It makes me want to reread Gilead, now that I know them so well.

Since Home is written from the perspective of Glory (while Gilead was written as the memoir of the Rev. John Ames), there is not as much religious reflection to ponder. That said, Robinson’s understanding and exploration of the relationships between very different people leave the reader much to chew on.

Home is a fitting sequel to Gilead, and a fine novel in its own right. Yes Home moves slow—the perfect speed for this story.

—Marilynne Robinson, Home (Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2008).

Quicksilver | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's QuicksilverHow on earth can I review of a book as complicated as Quicksilver?

Let’s start with scope. This book is volume one of The Baroque Cycle which continues in The Confusion and The System of the World. As a whole, these three volumes consist of eight “books”—the first three of which are included in Quicksilver. Are you confused yet? (Just wait for the second volume—Stephenson alternates chapter by chapter between the two books in that volume!) The work as a whole is approximately 3,000 pages long.

The plot is as sprawling and complicated as you might expect. The story takes place in New England, (Old) England, and all across the rest of Europe. Stephenson wields a cast of character which take ten pages in the back of the book to list. Major players include both historical figures (Newton) and inventions (Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza).

The range of topics is immense. You’ll learn about alchemy, vivisection, gall stones, cryptography, world finance, religion, hanging, and court politics—as these things existed in the later 1600s.

I’ll be honest—I barely kept my head above water throughout this volume. It would have helped me immensely to know more about the history of that era before jumping into Quicksilver. There were pages clearly set up to be “a-ha” moments that were somewhat lost on me.

In the end, I kept reading because there’s something compelling about the way Stephenson writes. He incorporates belly-laugh humour into his novels like no one else. It was also interesting to experience 17th Century Europe through his prose. This well-researched book makes you feel like you’re a part of the era.

The details are fascinating. At one point a character muses about how the word “shop” is changing. What used to refer to the businesses which lined the street (i.e. the cheese shop) is transforming from a noun to a verb in certain circles. Now we don’t “go to a shop,” we “go shopping.”

As dense as these 1,000 pages were, I picked up volume two as soon as I finished the last page of Quicksilver. The intellectual workout continues!

—Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).

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